The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL Russian: Легион «Свобода России») is a pro-Ukrainian paramilitary consisting of Russian immigrants and ex-Russian soldiers fighting against the Putin regime. The FRL is an official unit of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine and fights alongside the Ukrainian Military, as well as other paramilitary groups such as the Russian Volunteer Corps. Due to most FRL members having family still residing in Russia, the legion attempts to shroud itself in secrecy by hiding members' identities during interviews, refusing to disclose the number of soldiers fighting for them, and keeping quiet about their unit's activities. Despite their attempts to remain underground, the group has attracted media attention after participating in cross-border raids into Belgorod. Although the FRL does not disclose its current manpower, the legion was initially formed from a company of around 100 soldiers of the Russian Army who defected to Ukraine in February of 2022 (1).
History & Foundations
As aforementioned, the FRL was originally founded when a company of around 100 Russian Soldiers defected to Ukraine with the help of the Ukrainian Security Services on February 27th, 2022. The FRL would form a Telegram channel and hold a press conference announcing their formation in the months following their defection. In March of 2022, members of the newly formed FRL began training with Western equipment, such as the NLAW (Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon) and Stinger MANPADS (Man-portable Air Defence System) under the guidance of Ukrainian Armed Forces instructors (2). After holding their press conference in April, FRL members began operations in the Donbas region under the command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (3).
The legion first saw action in the Bakhmut and Lysychansk regions, where they captured Russian armored assets and personnel. During this time, the FRL received an influx of applications to join their ranks. These applications came from various backgrounds, such as current Russian soldiers wishing to defect, captured Russian service members, and anti-war advocates living in Russia. Some of these applicants have been fighting against the Putin Regime since 2019, when they participated in the Moscow Protests. As the war developed and more ethnic Russian units began fighting for Ukraine, the FRL helped develop the Irpin Declaration, a political union with the goal of organizing the FRL, Russian Volunteer Corps, and National Republican Army towards a singular objective. However, the Russian Volunteer Corps denies signing the declaration, and the National Republican Army has never confirmed its involvement (4). Despite denying their participation in the Irpin Declaration, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the FRL still operate in conjunction with one another, most notably working side-by-side during operations in Belgorod.
Objectives & Ideology
The FRL view themselves as ‘true’ Russian patriots fighting to overthrow a repressive regime that has led their country into poverty and chaos. While the FRL uses symbols associated with the anti-war movement, such as the white-blue-white flag, the FRL is composed of individuals with various ideological backgrounds. While some have been a part of anti-Putin organizations for years, others were previously involved with Russian nationalist groups (such as the Russian Imperial Movement) and some Russian immigrants who have decided to defend their adopted nation. Despite their array of backgrounds, all have joined together to dismantle the current regime and establish what they plan to be a respected multicultural country ruled by democracy.
The FRL has grown significantly since initially forming with 100 members. Just months after announcing its creation, the legion claims it received as many as 300 applications in a single day. An accurate assessment of the legion's current manpower has yet to be released. However, Ukrainian officials have made statements saying the group has a few hundred members, and the FRL has claimed they have two fully manned battalions (5). If this statement from the FRL is accurate, it can be estimated that the legion has anywhere between 500 to 2000 members actively deployed for combat operations. These estimates do not include members participating in partisan actions within Russia itself.
Approach to Resistance
As a part of the Ukrainian International Legion, the FRL is involved in defensive and offensive operations against Russian military forces, utilizing a variety of equipment ranging from SALW (Small arms, Light weapons), commercial drones, mounted recoilless rifles, anti-drone guns, and civilian market vehicles (6). A message within the FRL's Telegram group chat can be seen here, reading the following in its description:
"Dear compatriots, we are publishing another photo report about the purchase of the equipment we need, made with your donations, and volunteer assistance to the Legion 'Freedom of Russia'. We are very grateful to you for your feasible material contribution to the liberation of Russia from tyranny.
We will justify your trust. The regime will be overthrown.
For Russia! For freedom!"
FRL forces were first seen deployed to the Bakhmut region around February of 2023, where they primarily operated defensive firing positions along the frontline. The combat FRL troops were involved in during this time was mainly stagnant and took the form of long-range engagements where the enemy could be over a mile away.
A few months later, FRL forces would see a drastically different style of combat (7). In May 2023, the FRL, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), and the Polish Volunteer Corps would conduct an incursion across Russia's border into Belgorod. This incursion was meant to establish a demilitarized zone to prevent Russian artillery from striking targets within Ukraine (8). The FRL and RDK claimed to have pushed over 40 kilometers into Russia, taking military outposts and towns along the way (9). The incursion force would ultimately withdraw back behind the Ukrainian border after taking an unverified number of casualties and losing at least one US-supplied MRAP (Mine-resistant Ambush Protected) fighting vehicle (10). The following month – on June 1st – the FRL and RDK claimed they had begun another incursion into Belogord, accompanied by a Belarusian volunteer unit (11). During the second incursion, pro-Ukrainian forces took control of the Novaya Tavolzhanka administrative center in the Shebekinsky District (12). Russian forces claimed to have re-entered the District a little over a week later. However, claims of anti-government forces operating in the area have persisted (13).
The video above was found in the group's Telegram channel and it shows a member of the Russian Resistance giving instructions on how to act within the broader resistance movement. This video serves as an appeal to the Russian population.
Alliances & Relations
As a part of the Ukrainian International Legion, the FRL benefits from the Ukrainian Military's training courses, command structure, and equipment. Nevertheless, as seen during the Belgorod raids, the FRL has also developed relations with volunteer units that are not an official part of the Ukrainian Military. Some of these units included the aforementioned RDK and Polish Volunteer Corps. The FRL also receives support from partisans within Russia. These partisans primarily conduct propaganda campaigns for the FRL, such as distributing flyers, graffiti, and floating the FRL flag over Moscow using balloons (14), as seen in the Telegram message here. The FRL has also been seen posting videos and images of partisans within Russia conducting sabotage operations against Russian Military installations such as recruiting centers. However, whether the FRL was directly involved in these actions is unknown (15).
The respective Telegram message reads the following:
"We publish sent photos from the Motherland (from Vologda and Khimki) with the support of the Legion 'Freedom of Russia'.
Many thanks to all of you for your support in the Motherland!
We won't let you down!
Our cause is right! Putin and his regime will be destroyed! Victory will be ours!
For Russia! For freedom!"
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - “Switching Sides: The Elusive ‘russian Legion’ Fighting with Ukraine.” The Moscow Times, June 25, 2023. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/08/08/switching-sides-the-elusive-russian-legion-fighting-with-ukraine-a78459.
(2) - Boyko, Ivan. “Російські Військові з Легіону ‘Вільна Росія’, Які Воюють За Україну, Дали Брифінг (Відео).” Інформаційне агентство, May 4, 2022. https://www.unian.ua/war/brifing-rosiyskih-viyskovih-z-legionu-vilna-rosiya-yaki-voyuyut-za-ukrajinu-onlayn-translyaciya-novini-vtorgnennya-rosiji-v-ukrajinu-11773870.html.
(3) - Schwirtz, Michael. “They Are Russians Fighting against Their Homeland. Here’s Why.” The New York Times, February 12, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/12/world/europe/russian-legion-ukraine-war.html.
(4) - Solovyov, Bogdan. “Экс-Депутат Госдумы Создал в Украине Ячейку Для Борьбы с Путиным: Что Не Так с Организацией.” ФОКУС, September 1, 2022. https://focus.ua/politics/527726-eks-deputat-gosdumy-sozdal-v-ukraine-yacheyku-dlya-borby-s-putinym-chto-ne-tak-s-organizaciey.
(5) - “Switching Sides: The Elusive ‘russian Legion’ Fighting with Ukraine.” The Moscow Times, June 25, 2023. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/08/08/switching-sides-the-elusive-russian-legion-fighting-with-ukraine-a78459.
(6) - Fighters of the Legion “Freedom of Russia” landed the Russian drone “Orlan-10.” Telegram, 2022. https://t.me/legionoffreedom/411.
(7) - Schwirtz, Michael. “They Are Russians Fighting against Their Homeland. Here’s Why.” The New York Times, February 12, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/12/world/europe/russian-legion-ukraine-war.html.
(8) - Pravda, Ukrainska. “Freedom of Russia Legion Says They Are Creating a ‘Demilitarised Zone’ in Russia.” Yahoo! News, May 22, 2023. https://news.yahoo.com/freedom-russia-legion-says-creating-135819010.html.
(9) - Hall, Daniel. “Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK).” The Modern Insurgent, June 19, 2023. https://www.moderninsurgent.org/post/russian-volunteer-corps-rdk.
(10) - @ourwarstoday2. MaxxPro MRAPs, M240, AT4s, and ammunition captured from #Ukrainian-aligned Russian Volunteer Corps . May 24, 2023. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/Cspg3YrsvJ7/?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA%3D%3D.
(11) - “Здаецца, у Белгарадскай Вобласці Пабывалі Беларускія Добраахвотнікі.” Навіны Беларусі | euroradio.fm, June 3, 2023. https://web.archive.org/web/20230617121316/https://euroradio.fm/zdaecca-u-belgaradskay-voblasci-pabyvali-belaruskiya-dobraakhvotniki.
(12) - “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 4, 2023.” Institute for the Study of War, June 4, 2023. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-june-4-2023.
(13) - Artyushenko, Oleg. “‘Everyone for Themselves’: Attacks in Border Towns and Cities Bring the War to Russia’s Doorstep.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, June 17, 2023. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-belgorod-attacks-ukraine-war-/32463704.html.
(14) - Davis, Charles R. “Russian Opposition Group Posts Video of What Appears to Be an Antiwar Flag above Moscow Following Purported Cross-Border RAID.” Business Insider, May 22, 2023. https://www.businessinsider.com/liberty-of-russia-legion-appears-fly-opposition-flag-over-moscow-2023-5.
(15) - Video from a member of the Resistance to Putin’s dictatorship with instructions on how to act in the Resistance and an appeal to the Russians. Telegram. Accessed June 25, 2023. https://t.me/legionoffreedom/225.